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Smash Court Tennis 3 has arrived on the Xbox 360 to mostly muted reviews that describe it as no rival to Top Spin 3 or Virtua Tennis 3 - so, as Game People's resident sports enthusiast, did I find more here to like?
The major complaint about Atari's offering is that the gameplay is dull, imprecise and sluggish. However, reading on in many reviews that express this makes it fairly clear that the reviewer has simply not grasped the controls. While this is not a 'get out of jail free card', it does stand as a defence against the harshest reviews.
There is little doubt that gameplay is where SCT 3 floats or flops, and the control system is the heart of the matter. Just as many uncomfortable summer evenings on court with a far superior, yet ever-patient opponent have taught me, with Smash Court Tennis, it's all about timing and movement. The controls seem, on the surface, to be remarkably simple. You have the choice of topspin, flat hit, slice and lob. Holding down the required button as the ball approaches charges power, letting go executes the shot and the analogue stick controls its direction. Genuine complexity, however, lies in the timing required to hit the ball hard and accurately.
The key to success is learning the precise moment at which the button should be released to achieve power and precision.
The key to success is learning the precise moment at which the button should be released to achieve power and precision, and the gradation is subtle - it's not a simple as a blistering chalk-sprayer or a weedy half-courter. It takes a while to learn what the best shots in various situations look like, let alone how to play them. Drop shots, volleys and lobs, in particular, take a lot of time to perfect. You will certainly not be pounding down aces and trouncing opponents after five minutes, but personally, I prefer games that reflect the physical complexity of sport and offer more in terms of longevity than simply the amount of opponents you have to whoop to complete the game.
The other key factor is positioning: not where you direct your shot, but where you position your character in relation to the approaching ball. One online reviewer has written, frustratedly, that he couldn't hit the ball well, even when his player's body was right in line. Now, I'm no tennis pro, but this did make me smile... Directly behind the ball is exactly where you don't want to be. Just as in real-life, to play accurate shots, you have to be in a good position (around an arm and racquet's length away from the ball) and SCT is less happy to fudge this than other tennis games. However, there are times when your player will mysteriously miss-hit, or give up on a seemingly reachable ball, demonstrating that the positioning has not been perfectly fine-tuned.
Visually, SCT 3 lies somewhere between the cartoonish look of Virtua Tennis 3 and the full-on sensory onslaught of Top Spin 3. Although I found the graphics underwhelming at first, I did warm to them over time. They are realistic enough to support the experience, but they do not dominate it. Even if the faces are not perfect, I am impressed by how like their real-life counterparts the characters' movements and shot selections are. Overall the experience is quite televisual - although mostly in a reserved, BBC type way, and I can see how this might not impress those hoping for something a bit more Johnny Mac than Tim Henman.
I was surprised at how therapeutic choosing my player's reaction after a point became.
There are some nice touches and innovations - I was surprised at how therapeutic choosing my player's reaction after a point became, particularly after an opponent had successfully challenged a line-call with game's version of Hawk-Eye. Also the computer AI is sturdy and continues to pose a challenge as you progress. While the Pro Tour mode is generally entertaining and well conceived, the required training exercises become tedious pretty rapidly and involve too many loading screens. I was also rather disappointed that only sixteen pros have been included, by the drab sound and by the temperamental performance of the promising online mode.
While I am enjoying this game quite a lot and appreciate its restraint and commitment to realism, I can also understand why reviewers have been generally unconvinced. If a game is going to be understated and require the mastery of such demanding controls, it has to do everything else extremely well and, unfortunately, SCT 3 has a few slack strings.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
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